Space: ‘Let’s Just Do It’

by Paul Gilster on February 15, 2010

When Peter Diamandis talks about the emergence of a ‘let’s just do it’ mentality about spaceflight, anyone interested in getting our species off-planet will listen up. Diamandis, after all, as chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, has been a major force in making commercial space ventures newsworthy. Who can forget the first flight of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne? Diamandis firmly believes we are no longer content to watch government astronauts work in space. It’s time for the commercial sector to take off.

In a new article in the Wall Street Journal (thanks to Erik Anderson for the heads-up), Diamandis lays out our biggest challenge in getting a space-based infrastructure into operation: The cost. Ponder the fact that as the US space shuttle fleet is closed down, American astronauts will need to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz at a cost of over $50 million per person. That sounds high, and it is, but compare it to shuttle costs of between $750 to $2 billion per flight, depending on the launch schedule. Why so expensive? Oddly enough, the major cost isn’t fuel or payload:

Most people don’t realize that the major cost of a launch is labor. Fuel is less than 2%, while the standing army of people and infrastructure is well over 80%. The annual expense NASA bears for the shuttle is roughly $4 billion, whatever the number of launches.

Image: Astronauts Robert L. Curbeam (USA) and Christer Fuglesang (Sweden) work to attach a new truss segment to the ISS and begin to upgrade the power grid. Will the next fifty years see such operations in the hands of private companies? Credit: STS-116 Shuttle Crew, NASA.

Without the shuttle, we move into a more redundant launch marketplace, one whose competitive nature should ultimately drive down the cost of getting into orbit. Diamandis is co-founder of Space Adventures, which brokers the process of getting private citizens into space. The eight deals it has cut so far have wound up costing roughly $50 million per person. Within five years, that price should be below $20 million, and soon after below $5 million. As prices drop, we can expect a flowering of new space activity:

Within the next several decades, privately financed research outposts will be a common sight in the night sky. The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched. Mining operations will spring up on the moon. More opportunities we have yet to even comprehend will come out of the frontier. One thing is certain: The next 50 years will be the period when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization.

That’s a vision that begins to square with the future in space that I used to imagine as a kid instead of the frustrating series of stops and starts we’ve seen in recent decades (though eased by triumphs like Voyager or Cassini). As private capital looks toward space in terms of investment, public/private partnerships pave the way for serious commercialization. S-type asteroids, for example, are composed of iron, magnesium silicates and, as Diamandis points out, various other metals including cobalt and platinum. A half-kilometer S-type asteroid could be worth more than $20 trillion. Diamandis again:

…companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as “Seward’s Folly” (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

It’s always been my contention that we will be forced into building a space-based infrastructure extending to the outer planets because of our need to protect our planet from Earth-crossing asteroids. But Diamandis’ essay reminds us of the key role private industry has played in converting technologies created by the government, from air mail to the Internet, and turning them into robust industries. There is, in other words, abundant opportunity to be found in space much closer to home, with government focusing more on pure science while remaining a major customer of newly energized private operators.

I’ll also buy Diamandis’ timetable of the next fifty years being the period when we either establish ourselves as a space-based civilization or fail in the attempt. Success would inevitably produce the kind of technologies that make exploring the outer fringes of our Solar System, deep into the Kuiper Belt and one day to the Oort Cloud, a workable possibility. We don’t know what propulsion systems might in the next century take us even further, but it’s surely in the process of developing our tools one step at a time — ad astra incrementis — that we’ll one day push our first probes into solar systems other than our own.

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{ 77 comments }

Doug M. February 18, 2010 at 9:51

‘So the snappy come back is: “Technology marches on, eventually solar and wind will represent 100% of energy supply”.’

At some point, renewables will have to represent 100% of energy supply, pretty much by definition. It won’t take that long, either.

There are lots of different renewables besides solar and wind: hydro, tidal, OTEC, wavepower, geothermal, yadda yadda. Some of these require new technology (OTEC); most can be done with off-the-shelf tech and a bit of nudging.

I note in passing that people who have no trouble imagining space elevators or interstellar probes may suddenly lose all faith in human creativity when the topic turns to renewable energy. “Half our power from windmills? Science fiction! Ocean thermal? Wish-fulfillment fantasies!”

“Our population has grown beyond the planet’s carrying capacity and after the fossil fuels run out, our civilization will permanently change radically.”

I actually agree with the second part of this.

The first, well, “carrying capacity” forsooth. The Earth obviously /can/ support its current population. And peak population projections are only about 40% bigger than what we have now.

Doug M.

esg February 18, 2010 at 10:10

I’m sorry, I know I’m a layman doofus, but what’s the technical problem with nuclear pulse propulsion? Why isn’t it yet feasible, where were Orion and Daedalus wrong?

And fwiw I desperately want us to go into space because I want us to be more than what we are now, which is a small singular race confined to its dinky little home planet. I think at the end of the day, when all arguments are done, it comes back to that principle of science: are you content to stagnate, or do you want to know more and be more? –Doesn’t ANYONE else get mad when they look up APOD and think of a million planets they’ll never touch?

Eniac February 18, 2010 at 13:14

I believe Admiral Rickover would have advocated conversion from fossil fuels to nuclear power.

I read that speech, and indeed he does advocate just that. And that is what we started doing, we just stopped prematurely at 20% instead of continuing to 80% as the French have done, so cleverly. Is it too late? I don’t think so. If we start building more nuclear power now, it will be better and cheaper than the first generation, and it will eventually replace coal and oil completely for baseline energy generation.

I have looked into Peak Oil, and if you look at those peaking curves, they actually decay quite slowly. The oil will not suddenly stop, it will just stop growing. And start a gradual decline. Oil will get more expensive, people will buy more Priuses, waste less energy, and build more non-fossil power plants. They will also drill or dig for more oil, and use more coal and natural gas, which are still quite plentiful. Eventually, demand will slow so much that the price will go down, again. The OPEC cartel can sing you a song about how hard it is to profit from this “dependeny” of the West on oil. Darn it, we reduce production to profit more and they dare to use less of it. Eventually oil will become a basic chemical feedstock, at drastically reduced volume. If it really runs out totally, it can easily be replaced by coal or biomass.

Oil is needed for transportation, but that too will start to change. A transportation revolution is coming with the emergence of plug-in hybrid automobiles, and a movement back from trucking to rail would be more of a good thing than bad.

I actually think Peak Oil would be a good thing, were it real. However, at the risk of being called one of those people who always say there is plenty of oil if you look for it harder, there actually is, EROEI notwithstanding.

Peak Oil is the elephant in the room. It amazes me that intelligent people refuse to see it.

Elephant, yes, but of the pink variety and seeing it is not related to intelligence.

T_U_T February 18, 2010 at 13:19

I’m sorry, I know I’m a layman doofus, but what’s the technical problem with nuclear pulse propulsion? Why isn’t it yet feasible, where were Orion and Daedalus wrong?

It uses the cursed N thing.

T_U_T February 18, 2010 at 13:24

Conversion to nuclear power in the 1970s would have been the best way to avoid the impact of Peak Oil.

why in 70s ? why not now ? there is still enough oil to build a lot of nuclear power plants.

Administrator February 18, 2010 at 14:47

esg writes:

I’m sorry, I know I’m a layman doofus, but what’s the technical problem with nuclear pulse propulsion? Why isn’t it yet feasible, where were Orion and Daedalus wrong?

Orion ran into problems because of political climate and the test ban treaty of 1963, which shut down the idea of deploying huge numbers of nuclear devices for propulsion. Daedalus — and the new Icarus project that follows on from it — would have used some form of fusion (Daedalus was designed around inertial confinement methods), but so far we have been unable to get fusion to work successfully on Earth, much less in deep space. So these designs weren’t necessarily wrong, but in one case the political situation and in the other the need to develop the technology have slowed or stopped their deployment.

Gary Allen February 18, 2010 at 19:43

Earlier I said:
“Conversion to nuclear power in the 1970s would have been the best way to avoid the impact of Peak Oil.”

T_U_T asked:
“why in 70s ? why not now ? there is still enough oil to build a lot of nuclear power plants.”

Of course we need to start building lots of nuclear power plants Right Now. Unfortunately much of our industrial infrastructure that existed in the 1970s went away when we converted to a Finance Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) economy. Part of what motivated our conversion to a FIRE economy was American Peak Oil. A nuclear power plant needs lots a steel forgings. Now a days those can only be made in Japan, Korea or China. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area they’re rebuilding the Bay Bridge. The steel for the new bridge came from China.

Gary Allen February 18, 2010 at 20:25

On the subject of Peak Oil: The plot that validated Hubbert’s original US Peak Oil prediction is linked below:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/58/Hubbert_US_high.svg

Note that America’s oil peaked in the 1970s which coincidentally was when our manufacturing base started to fall apart.

Below is current world oil production:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Hubbert_world_2004.png

Obviously, these numbers can be fudged but based upon this graph, world oil production has already peaked.

Concerning collapse back into the 18th century: The mechanism involves Peak Oil coupled with nuclear proliferation. As the world’s energy supply runs down, we’ll go into a “thermal runaway” where Nation A runs out of energy and opts to steal Nation B’s petroleum by nuking away Nation B’s population (destroying half of Nation B’s remaining petroleum in the process). After doing so, Nation C then opts to nuke Nation A so it can steal Nation B’s petroleum. This process continues until there’s nothing left but radioactive ruins and empty oil wells.

bigdan201 February 18, 2010 at 20:40

lol @ the balls to do it. We had the balls to set foot on the moon and put rovers on Mars (which are STILL operating), so im not too worried.

Anyway, good discussion. The oil situation is definitely of concern. Whether the peak is nearer or farther, there is a finite amount of oil in the crust, and once its gone we wont be able to get it back. Fortunately, we’ve been taking steps to build up renewable energy technology and ease off of fossil fuel dependence. Solar and wind power are good, and nuclear is great. One important step that needs to be taken is to get cars and vehicles off of gasoline. Burning it up to drive around everywhere is enormously wasteful – after all, there are other uses for oil than just fuel. If we can make a smooth transition to minimal fossil fuel use, we wont have to go through a crash in our society.

These ideas for ramjet stages as a more economic way of getting to orbit sound great. Launch loops and magnetic rails are also of interest to me.. they could supply efficient travel to orbit once established.

Gary Allen February 18, 2010 at 20:54

Doug M. said:
“There are lots of different renewables besides solar and wind: hydro, tidal, OTEC, wavepower, geothermal, yadda yadda. Some of these require new technology (OTEC); most can be done with off-the-shelf tech and a bit of nudging.”

EROEI excludes most of those alternatives. People are currently doing wind and solar-voltaics mainly due to government subsidy. Maybe the EROEI for wind or solar power will become acceptable with economies of scale. More likely the energy required to build a wind mill is greater than its lifetime energy output (the manufacturer lies about his energy cost and the windmill’s lifetime energy production) and it goes away after the government subsidy ends.

Doug M. also said:
“I note in passing that people who have no trouble imagining space elevators or interstellar probes may suddenly lose all faith in human creativity when the topic turns to renewable energy. “Half our power from windmills? Science fiction! Ocean thermal? Wish-fulfillment fantasies!””

I’m paid to do paper studies of interplanetary probes. With the right software, it’s fun and easy to do. However actually building one is hard to do. Lot’s of devil in the detail. I have the greatest respect for engineers who actually build things. In many ways an automobile engine designer has a much more difficult job than a Rocket Scientist. An automobile engine needs to have high fuel economy, not pollute the air, not kill its operator and produce a profit for the automobile company.

I firmly believe that we can (or could) colonize Mars. However actually doing so not only requires some brilliant rocket science but also requires a vibrant economy, a fully functioning industrial infrastructure and wise political leadership (the hard part). At various times in the past fifty years, the United States satisfied two out of three of those additional requirements. Right now we satisfy zero out of three requirements.

Doug M. February 19, 2010 at 3:34

“People are currently doing wind and solar-voltaics mainly due to government subsidy.”

As opposed to nuclear, which never received any government subsidies at all. Got it.

” Maybe the EROEI for wind or solar power will become acceptable with economies of scale. More likely the energy required to build a wind mill is greater than its lifetime energy output”

I’m sorry — no offense intended — but that’s a profoundly wrong statement, and one that suggests you really haven’t done your homework. Just googling “wind eroi” pops up several articles on the topic right away. Here’s one:

Energy return on investment (EROI) for wind energy

“This article reviews 119 wind turbines from 50 different analyses, ranging in publication date from 1977 to 2006. This survey shows average EROI for all studies (operational and conceptual) of 25.2 (n=114; std. dev=22.3). The average EROI for just the operational studies is 19.8 (n=60; std. dev=13.7). This places wind energy in a favorable position relative to conventional power generation technologies in terms of EROI.”

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_return_on_investment_%28EROI%29_for_wind_energy

– And that’s actually a conservative study; it includes older studies that were looking at older, more expensive, less efficient windmills.

A typical wind turbine being installed today? Has EROI well into three digits.

Doug M.

Doug M. February 19, 2010 at 3:48

– In fairness to Gary, there was a time when EROI on wind was very low. As recently as the 1980s, most windmills were made of aluminum, which drove their energy cost sky-high. And windmills of that period were, by modern standards, grotesquely inefficient. EROIs were in single digits back then, and for some designs they may even have been less than 1.

But that was 30 years ago. It’s like comparing a modern desktop computer to an Apple II.

Doug M.

Gary Allen February 19, 2010 at 16:24

This thread is getting too long and becoming stale so this will be my last comment.

Salesman over at http://www.theoildrum.com frequently push the concept of wind power. Other people jump in and try to debunk the sales job but it’s futile since the wind turbine salesman has a vested interest and will always be more persistent.

Doug M. already mentioned that the early windmills were based upon aluminum extrusions that had horrible EROEI (refining and forging aluminum is very energy intensive). So wind turbine manufacturers have gone to graphite composite structure.

Problem solved… Right?….. Well maybe.

Graphite composite has nasty failure modes. If you flex it enough times, cracks will form in the plastic matrix and it can fail catastrophically. For years, the aircraft industry has been circling around the issue of graphite composite structure due to concerns about how the material ages. For windmills to work, they need to produce a significant EROEI over their entire lifetime (decades). More significantly, there has been concern that a national power grid can not tolerate an intermittent energy source like wind energy due to power grid stability concerns. The grid power stability issue might actually be a show stopper. Of course the wind turbine salesman will never tell you about this (someone from the peanut gallery needs to bring up these embarrassing points). Ditto that with the solar voltaic salesman.

For what it’s worth, I think garden variety nuclear power with fuel reprocessing along with synthetic petroleum from coal are the short term (one century or less) solutions. However we need to (or should have) gracefully transition(ed) from petroleum to nuclear power. If we shock the system by too rapid of a transition then there will be wars over remaining petroleum reserves and the world’s economy will go into thermal runaway. IMHO, this is a likely scenario.

david lewis February 19, 2010 at 16:27

An EROI of 80 is not unreasonable for modern wind turbines. However, that energy is not constant. If you want to replace coal and oil, making wind your primary source of energy then you need a way to store that energy. Or have a grid big enough that some part of it is always producing enough energy. Not sure just how big that grid would need to be. Or how creating that amount of storage capacity would affect the EROI.

Also wind energy has a large footprint – 0.1 sq kilometers per 1 megawatt of capacity. Of course for some countries that amount of land might not be a big deal. Especially if you build off-shore.

While the most easily accessible, and the cleanest, oil might soon run out, there is still plenty of dirtier oil and coal in the ground. I’ve seen estimates of 200-300 years worth of coal left – and we can produce oil from coal. So while we might hit peak oil and it might be economic disaster it won’t be the ruin of us. Though the pollution from the coal might be.

As for subsidies. Burning coals kills 1 million per year worldwide. Air pollution kills around 3 million. When one considers the health costs that is quite a large subsidy there for coal and oil. Not to mention how acidic our oceans are becoming, not to mention other environmental factors.

As for nuclear. The death toll from it is nowhere near that of oil and coal. Using breeder reactors the fuel supply won’t run out for centuries. Millions of years if we can harvest the fuel from seawater – and we actually can do that.

The largest death toll from chernobyl might not have come from the release of radioactive material, but from the way it kept us from developing nuclear technology for energy. Not that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep such disasters from happening, however we currently have an ongoing nuclear disaster – the radium, uranium and thorium … that burning coal releases. Not to mention things like arsenic and mercury. Not to mention altering our atmosphere with our pollution.

————————–

A civilization that isn’t based on unlimited consumption could probably get by with wind and hydro so I doubt that if we were to get knocked back a century or two in terms of technology that we couldn’t build back up to a space-faring capacity. At least in terms of energy. However, I’m not so sure we would do so. We have too many other important matters to spend our creativity on – like killing each other.

T_U_T February 19, 2010 at 18:54

Graphite composite has nasty failure modes. If you flex it enough times, cracks will form in the plastic matrix and it can fail catastrophically.

That is but finding excuses. There is a good reason do be worried when it comes to aircraft. But if a wind turbine snaps, so what. It will be replaced, at EROI well in three digit range it would not matter even if all turbines snapped before half of their expected lifetime

T_U_T February 19, 2010 at 18:56

where Nation A runs out of energy and opts to steal Nation B’s petroleum by nuking away Nation B’s population (destroying half of Nation B’s remaining petroleum in the process). After doing so, Nation C then opts to nuke Nation A so it can steal Nation B’s petroleum. This process continues until there’s nothing left but radioactive ruins and empty oil wells.

Then it is the nuclear warfare that would throw us back, not the energy crisis per se.

Gary Allen February 19, 2010 at 19:14

The thread is stale and this really is my last comment…

David Lewis said: “As for nuclear. The death toll from it is nowhere near that of oil and coal. Using breeder reactors the fuel supply won’t run out for centuries. Millions of years if we can harvest the fuel from seawater – and we actually can do that.”

I’m rabidly pro-nuclear but liquid metal breeder reactors scare me. The whole concept of a heat exchanger with liquid sodium on one side and water on the other is simply nuts from a safety perspective. Liquid salt breeder reactors and graphite ball gas cooled reactors avoids this problem and maybe long term solutions.

I’m sceptical about anything based upon sea water. Sea water and sea life are hard on machinery. After including all the hidden costs, the EROEI with sea water based systems is normally prohibitive. EROEI is a serious idea killer. The world’s economy is based upon energy systems where the EROEI was simply the effort to poke a hole in the ground and allow high grade crude oil to bubble up under its own pressure. This was a classic monkey trap.

bigdan201 February 20, 2010 at 0:19

Further advances will make processing seawater more economical, with a myriad of benefits – not just nuclear fuel, but also obtaining fresh water among other things.

Wind power is a very good alternative. A quick read on wikipedia highlights the many benefits of it. While I dont envision it to be a primary source of power, it will be a highly effective secondary power source to nuclear. I imagine that the future will have nuclear power as the primary workhorse, with solar/wind/hydro/etc as secondary sources. Vehicles will hopefully be running on electricity/hydrogen/biofuels.

I dont think EROEI is such a showstopper.. any energy idea that didnt take into account the energy of building/running it vs energy produced would not make sense from the outset. With technology advances, renewable energy has already become more competitive and will continue to replace fossil fuels.

Doug M. February 20, 2010 at 5:00

“Graphite composite has nasty failure modes… For years, the aircraft industry has been circling around the issue of graphite composite structure due to concerns about how the material ages.”

Gary, I’m sorry, but once again this falls under “not doing your homework”.

First, the stresses on windmills are different and, on average, an order of magnitude less than the stresses on large aircraft. The rotor ends of a large windmill may be moving at speeds of ~50/m sec. That’s around stall speed for most aircraft.

Second, if the windmill experiences windspeeds above its operational range, you just flip a switch and turn on the brake. Modern windmills can also adjust dynamically, feathering their rotors to reduce wind stress.

Third, if a windmill rotor snaps… you go up there and fix it. There’s not going to be loss of life or collateral property damage. The safety concerns of aircraft are just not there.

” For windmills to work, they need to produce a significant EROEI over their entire lifetime (decades).”

They do. I already pointed this out, and gave you a cite. I can give more if you want me to. Windmill EROEIs are now much higher than oil or coal, and are still rising.

If you disagree, give a countercite. Otherwise, please don’t talk like it’s still an open issue. It isn’t.

“there has been concern that a national power grid can not tolerate an intermittent energy source like wind energy due to power grid stability concerns.”

That’s a real concern, so I’m going to ignore the fact that you’re suddenly shifting the goalposts.

The current record-holder for wind power is Denmark, which gets about 20% of its electricity from wind. So far, they haven’t encountered serious problems with intermittency. Of course, Denmark is a small and windy country — the wind is always blowing somewhere, and it’s easy for them to move power around. Still, it’s probably valid as a proof-of-concept: a First World economy can get /at least/ 20% of its power from wind.

If we wanted to get all our energy from wind, then yes, we’d have to use windpower to generate power in some other form — pumping water uphill to be used for hydro when the wind is not blowing, for instance, or creating liquid hydrocarbon fuels for later burning.

But even if this process involves a 80% loss of efficiency, we’re still talking EROIs comfortably into double digits.

And that’s just wind. We haven’t even started on different sorts of solar, never mind tidal, wave, or OTEC.

Doug M.

Doug M. February 20, 2010 at 5:01

To bring this sub-thread back to its beginning: Paul, you said you agreed with Diamandis timetable of “fifty years”. Would you care to say why? I’m sincerely curious.

Doug M.

T_U_T February 20, 2010 at 5:30

currently only uranium 235 is being used in power plants, and it is thrown away after using.
given that uranium 235 is only 0.72 % of natural uranium, one pass in reactor will burn only 3 % of the uranium in a fuel pellet, and there is 3 times more thorium than uranium and there is thousand times more of those stuffs in seawater than in the ground, the net efficiency of that extreme waste is 0.0000054 %.
Uranium wasted that way is expected to peak in 2035 that is 15 years according to the most pessimistic estimate.
but if we reprocess, use breeder reactors, use thorium and uranium, and extract it from seawater, it will peak in…. 278 million years !. So much for peak uranium.

Administrator February 20, 2010 at 9:26

Doug M. wrote:

To bring this sub-thread back to its beginning: Paul, you said you agreed with Diamandis timetable of “fifty years”. Would you care to say why? I’m sincerely curious.

Doug, my opinion is that with rapid advances in computerization and nanotech, we are approaching a juncture where one option will be turning inward, with spaceflight put aside for purposes other than climate monitoring and other close to home activities. I would see this as a setback — I didn’t mean to imply that it would be permanent, because I’m an optimist and believe we’ll eventually get that deep space infrastructure built. But my concern is that we may be in for a long fallow period where little gets accomplished toward these ends.

T_U_T February 20, 2010 at 9:36

The following statement is false :

.After including all the hidden costs, the EROEI with sea water based systems is normally prohibitive. EROEI is a serious idea killer.

As the following link shows,
there are selective adsorbents that can adsorb uranium out of seawater at no additional energy expense and can be reused up to 25 times. And require no additional energy nor machinery to extract uranium. All you need is to put them into deep water, pull them out after a year or so, and wash the adsorbed uranium out of it, so the EROEI is most probably extremely high.

david lewis February 20, 2010 at 13:30

———-
But even if this process involves a 80% loss of efficiency, we’re still talking EROIs comfortably into double digits.
———-

A nearby town has plans to use wind energy. Wind turbines produce energy with any surplus energy being used to produce hydrogen. When there isn’t enough wind the hydrogen is then burned. Sounds feasible.

-When the wind is blowing the energy can come directly from the turbines and would be very cheap.

-When the wind isn’t blowing the energy comes from the hydrogen. The cost of the equipment to burn the hydrogen is probably less expensive then a similar plant to burn coal – no need to catch any of the pollution to reduce air pollution so it would save on one step there. The cost of producing and storing the hydrogen is probably no more expensive than blowing the tops off mountains and transporting coal over hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

-If such a system were put into place on a national level then switching cars from gasoline to hydrogen suddenly becomes that much easier. Ready sources of clean hydrogen are available. Not to mention tens of billions of dollars would be saved on healthcare from air pollution.

Sounds to me like it would work. So nuclear or wind could power a civilization capable of space travel.

An interesting fact, to me anyway, is that the energy content of the uranium and thorium in the coal we burn is greater than the energy we get from the coal itself. So if we got coal reserves to last a few centuries we got fuel for nuclear reactors to last at least that long.

Doug M. February 20, 2010 at 14:03

Paul,

Interesting! I’m not sure I agree, but I’d say it’s a lot more plausible than “Peak Oil will have us breaking out the buggy whips” or “Darwin will punish us for spurning nuclear”.

cheers,

Doug M.

T_U_T February 20, 2010 at 20:03

my opinion is that with rapid advances in computerization and nanotech

I don’t think that even the most realistic virtual simulation can cause people to abandon any ambiti0ns to achieve something in reality. ( ask someone who plays a lot of computer games, whether he thinks we should continue manned space travel, or not, I predict that almost any of the folks will look very surprised that you even ask such silly questions ). On the contrary. Any such will act as an imagination amplifying device, thus increasing human lust for adventures and curiosity.

There is only one force than can divorce us from reality and prevent us from trying to reach for the stars. Insanity. Either in the form of delusions religious or general ideological, the resulting rabid intellectualism, combined with phobias, especially technophobia and radiophobia and paranoia and conspiracy theories, together breeding an acrid mixture of hatred against all science and all knowlededge and fear of anything beyond the small piece of the world that an atrophied mind of a fanatic can comprehend. Dogma, rigidity , ignorance-faith- dogma, or denialism-based policies causing societal/environmental/economic decay, Intolerance supremacism, religious hatred causing genocidal warfare, apocalypticism, that can cause someone use nukes as the first, not the last option in war.

That is why we, as a civilization, seem to be regressing right now. That is, why the second dark age is more and more likely.

Eniac February 22, 2010 at 15:51

A quick last note on the EROI issue: Please keep in mind that EROI is a variable with little return. What I mean by that is: an EROI2 is pretty good. Everything greater than 10 is excellent. The difference between 10 and 1000 is small, it reduces the extra effort needed for getting the same net energy by only 10%. Thus is it quite pointless to argue about whether windmills have an EROI of 10 or 200, as long as it is greater than 2 or so they constitute a realistic source of energy.

The EROI for oil may go down as easily accessible resources are depleted, but it can also go up as more economical recovery methods are devised. The EROI for nuclear and renewable resources can only go up, because there is no depletion issue, given that there is no fuel (renewable), or its cost is a negligible part of the cost of energy production (nuclear).

So, you see, we have all the means at our hands for a limitless supply of clean energy, what has been keeping us from using them is cheap oil. So, bring on Peak Oil, and let us welcome it.

Ironically, disbelief in Peak Oil is a pessimistic attitude.

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